Music Infused With Sorrow and Joy

Music, Infused With Sorrow and Joy, in Honor of Migrant Dreamers

The New York Times
By Celia W. Dugger

PHOTO: JOAO SILVA FOR THE NEW YORK TIME Hugh Masekela, 70, performing his “Songs of Migration,” a revival of the music made by migrants who moved to Johannesburg to dig for gold.
Hugh Masekela, 70, performing his “Songs of Migration,” a revival of the music made by migrants who moved to Johannesburg to dig for gold.

JOHANNESBURG — Hugh Masekela, the legendary trumpeter, blew his horn, sang with bluesy fervor and boogied across the stage on his puffy, 70-year old knees in his “Songs of Migration,” a revival of the music made by those who came from all over southern Africa to dig for gold and search for work here in the continent’s great boom town.

And every now and then, in the midst of the performance, he stared hard at the people who filled the seats in front of him at the Market Theater, their faces illuminated in the glow of the stage lights.

Grandmothers with tear-streaked cheeks mouthed the words along with him. Middle-aged women swayed to songs that had been woven into their girlhood games. Teenagers, dragged along by the grownups, were hearing this music of a bygone era for the first time.

“Mothers, sons, daughters witnessed the truckloads of men leaving their villages,” Mr. Masekela said in his syncopated narration of the migrants’ story. “They took the little they had and off to the city they went. Side by side, these men stood at the back of the trucks, fighting hard the urge to look back.”

The dozens of songs performed by him, Sibongile Khumalo, a leading South African diva, and a small, gifted cast are part of the rich musical trove that makes up what Mr. Masekela called “Africa’s greatest literature.” The show recently finished a run here, with plans to perform at the National Arts Festival this June in Grahamstown.

It is an attempt to reclaim what apartheid suppressed — the songs that sprang up after gold was discovered here in 1886 and Africans from different nations crowded into urban slums and created new musical styles. In the most oppressive years of apartheid, ideologists of white minority rule separated not just blacks and whites, but blacks who spoke different languages from one another, even segregating state-controlled radio into stations for speakers of each language.

The show celebrates the music of migrant workers from the city’s earlier melting pot years. Gwen Ansell, a music writer and the author of “Soweto Blues,” calls it “a new and incredibly powerful framework for telling the story.”

Mr. Masekela is still haunted by the music that was everywhere during his childhood — wafting into his home as a musical group rehearsed nearby, rising in churches and school halls, and echoing across townships. When he returned to South Africa in 1990 after 30 years in exile, he said, “It wasn’t there anymore.”

As the show opened, a lanky young man in an ill-fitting suit and fedora froze in mid-stride, a suitcase tossed over his shoulder. A train whistle blew and men and women in traveling clothes grabbed battered suitcases. Soon the stage was alive with dance and song. “When people move from one part of the world to the other, they pack not only clothes, it’s baggage, it’s memories,” said James Ngcobo, 40, the show’s director.

The crowd warmly greeted the white-haired Mr. Masekela, outfitted in a purple jacket and gaudy red tie with a trumpet to his lips, as if he were a favorite aging uncle. Their applause rose as he showed he still had his dancing chops.

The songs themselves told sorrowful stories about leaving home, waiting for letters that never come, yearning for distant lovers and enduring cruel conditions in the mines. But often the music and dancing were infused with energy, joy and bawdy humor.

The crowd that packed the intimate theater for the final Sunday matinee was surely one of the most integrated, multigenerational gatherings anywhere in South Africa. The whole audience cheered when the old national flag from the apartheid years was lowered stage left and the flag of a new democratic South Africa rose stage right.

The singers made nods to the immigrant roots of white South Africans, with tender renditions of “My Yiddishe Mama” in Yiddish and “Sarie Marais,” an old love song, in Afrikaans. But the bulk of the show was in various languages — Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Pedi and Shangaan.

Sometimes it seemed there were two audiences in one, with the whites sitting blankly as blacks whooped at the jokes and responded to the music with cries of “Hallelujah!” and “Yebo!”

After the show ended with a rousing finale in Shangaan, families, old folks and young couples of every color poured into the courtyard on a warm summer afternoon, chatting about the performance.

Theresia Mosola, part of a contingent from the Soweto Old Age Home, hobbled into the sunlight dressed up in pearls and a jaunty beret. “It tells about the time when I was still a young lady,” she said. “I remember those days when I was still dancing.”

Some whites admitted to being frustrated by the language barrier. “As a whitey, it would have been great if I could have understood a lot of what was said,” said Katherine Booth, a 39-year-old urban planner. But Susan Ingle and Dulcie Horne, 53-year-old friends at the show for a second time, emerged elated by what Ms. Horne called the “wonderful vibe” and said that maybe they needed to learn Zulu and Xhosa.

For many older blacks, the show was a musical homecoming in a city that continues to lure new generations of migrants from across Africa. “It’s important for us not to forget where we’ve been,” said Dr. Nono Simelela, the chief executive officer of the South Africa National AIDS Council. “Remember the pain, but celebrate.”

On her third time at the show, Dr. Simelela brought along her grandchild’s baby sitter, Bokang Hlao, 30, a migrant from Lesotho separated from her own children, ages 10 and 3. Ms. Hlao said the songs were painful to her as they told “about how our children at home misses us.”

“She’s a sister,” Dr. Simelela said. “I wanted her to know she’s more to me than just a baby sitter.”

As the matinee crowd thinned, she and Ms. Hlao left holding hands.